Practical tips to stop procrastinating

One of the reasons I like facebook so much is that I get to find out what my childhood friends from overseas are doing these days. It turns out that energetic, mischievous Robby B, who I once beat in a swimming race (yes, glory!) at the age of 10 these days is a bit of a procrastinator. 

Robby, believe me, we can all relate.

Today he was asking for help though and posted this question: What practical tips do you have to help me stop procrastinating? Apparently, like many of us, he does nothing, tries to do it all at once, gets frustrated and then goes back to facebook and a cup of tea.

I wanted to answer it with something pithy and immediate but I had trouble coming up with a good answer and procrastination thoughts have been bubbling around in my brain all day.

Like a lot of things, practical tips are a bit useless without a whole thought shift going on behind it. You can give yourself gold stars or take yourself out for coffee or do whatever rewards (or punishments) might work, but it will still only be a short term solution.

What needs to come first is the thinking change. This always takes longer to do, but it leads to better action in the long term.

So, without further ado, I present, Cecily's guide to overcoming procrastination.

1) Think about your thinking. What are your thoughts around whatever it is that you have to do? Write them down so that they're out in the open - both the 'acceptable' and the 'unacceptable' thoughts.

Now. I'm guessing that most procrastination comes up around things we think that we 'should' do. Things like "I should tidy that, study this, fix up the other." And after those thoughts there's always a 'because'. It might be, "because my friend says so and I have to keep her happy," or, "because if I don't I'll fail and that will make me a loser," or, "because I think I have to attain some kind of standard." 

I'm guessing that because these 'shoulds' originate from someone else and not yourself, they're not actually your own choices. I want to use the word 'authentic' here, but somehow it's going to sound cheesy.

Brain studies have shown that when an idea originates from yourself, the energy to accomplish it comes with it. (See the book Quiet Leadership by David Rock for more on this.) Conversely we tend to resist ideas that come from somewhere else that we have not taken on as our own.

2) So, spend a couple of weeks owning your choices. Our behaviour shows our priorities and choices. Basically, you know someone by what he does. So if you're a person who chooses to sit and drink tea and ignore mess, acknowledge that. You don't have to be guilty about it. You're a grown up. You can choose to do that if you want to. The key at this time is to be honest about the choices you're making right now.

I'm not saying that you should have a giggle about it though and say "I'm being naughty but it's okay," like we do when we've had too many cakes and we know it's time to stop. This kind of ownership is honest, sober and realistic. "I'm choosing to eat more cake right now. I like the way it tastes. I feel good when I eat cake. I could stop but I'm choosing to not stop. I am aware of the repercussions of eating this cake and I am prepared to feel sickish for the next few hours." 

3) Next, spend a couple of weeks sorting out your broader priorities. What do you choose for your future? Do you actually want a clean house? Or are you happy with a level of clutter? Do you want to achieve something like writing a book or building a car or going on a massive hike? Prioritise them into dreams and hopes and choices for the next two years, five years, ten years, whatever.

4) Start breaking down the big priorities into smaller steps. This is where many people fall over. It's important to be able to hold a bigger picture in view at the same time as doing just a small portion of the big task. You can't do everything at once. But you can do a little bit today and a little bit more tomorrow. And you can do that six days a week for a year, and all of a sudden 12 months have passed and things are different. Writing down the steps might help. Then you get to cross them off as you go. 

5) Keep the bigger picture in mind. How will you feel when you're done? How will it look when it's done? What benefits will it give you when it's finished? Think about that and not the size of the task ahead.

5) Get someone to do it with you. A big job is always better when someone else is doing it with you. When you feel overwhelmed they can support you and when they feel overwhelmed, you can spur them on.

6) Set a start date. And a finish date. And have a celebration when it's done. 

7) If you don't succeed, own it and analyse it. What went wrong? Again, be sober and honest about it.  Maybe it was too big an enterprise for right now. Maybe in the end you weren't willing to commit. Maybe you wanted to do other things. Go back to step one and start again.